Rick Mast remembers thrill of earning first Brickyard 400 pole as if it was yesterday

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It’s trivia time:

Most of us know Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.

But who won the pole for that race?

Dale Earnhardt? Rusty Wallace? Bill Elliott? Gordon?

Nope.

The answer: Rick Mast.

The Brickyard pole was one of only four poles the Rockbridge Baths, Virginia native claimed in his 15-year, 364-race NASCAR Cup career.

And even though he’s been retired from racing for the last 15 years, Mast forever will be known as the driver to take the field to green in NASCAR’s first foray at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Driving the No. 1 Skoal Ford Thunderbird for team owner Richard Jackson, Mast led the first two laps before falling back in the field, eventually finishing 22nd.

Rick Mast won the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 in the No. 1 Ford.

Qualifying for the pole proved to be almost like a race itself, as 86 cars took part to potentially be a part of NASCAR history and the 43-car field for the Brickyard.

Mast, though, had a secret weapon that played a big part in earning the top spot – four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

“I got to know A.J. pretty well because we shared the same sponsor, so I went over and told him what my car was doing and he kind of told me what to expect,” Mast said in a media release. “We made some minor adjustments, and when I made the qualifying lap the car was on a rail. It just stuck.”

Mast qualified early in the first half of the session with a speed of 172.414 mph.

Then came the waiting game as the remainder of the 86 cars gave the pole their best efforts.

“Everybody prepared,” Mast said. “I never saw the total garage area prepare so long for one single lap.

“It used to be that Daytona was a big deal. You’d go down there testing all the time in the winter preparing for that qualifying lap, but it seemed Indy was like that times 10 for two years.”

Even after his qualifying run, Mast still replayed it over and over in his head, making mental check-off notes that he did everything he could to get as much speed out of his race car.

“There are so many unknowns to that place,” Mast said. “You knew the track would change so much and the time we went out wasn’t the best time of the day, but I had no clue if it was going to hold up.

“I remember thinking maybe halfway through the qualifying session when nobody was really coming close to our speed that we might have a shot at it, but we knew better than to let ourselves get up too much hope.”

And then came even more waiting.

“It seemed like it took three days to run all those cars,” Mast said. “Richard (Jackson) was torn all to pieces. He couldn’t sit down, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk. He knew what it was all about and what it meant for Skoal and Ford.”

What made Mast’s pole win all the more sweeter for himself, Jackson and the team is they were the new kids on the Ford block for that season and beat out longtime stalwarts that carried the blue oval like Junior Johnson, Robert Yates and Jack Roush. Mast’s team had switched from Oldsmobile to Ford before the 1994 season.

“We were stepping in as a new team in the Ford camp and it was incumbent on me to try to justify Ford’s involvement with us,” Mast said. “I was so wanting to prove ourselves to Ford in some capacity, and when I sat on the pole at Indy it gave me some big satisfaction. It was a very, very big deal in my eyes for Ford to do that and that’s not sugar-coating anything. That’s just the way it was at the time.”

Mast was forced to retire from racing in 2002 after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning that left him confined to a bed for 31 days.

“About three of four years after I retired it started easing up to where now I can breathe it,” Mast said. ”I can be around it and it doesn’t bother me.

“I don’t go into a garage or any confined space or an area that has fumes or stuff like that. I immediately try to get away from it, but at least I can be around it and that’s a lot better than they said it would ever be, so for that I’m very grateful.”

These days, Mast runs his own business, RKM Enviro Clean, which offers cleaning services ranging from hazardous material clean-up to flood recovery services.

But he hasn’t forgotten his racing roots. He still attends races at Richmond and Martinsville when he can.

Mast was reminded in a recent interview that his Brickyard pole wasn’t the only illustrious start of his Cup career.

When asked who sat on the pole for Richard Petty’s last Cup race and Jeff Gordon’s first Cup race, as well as the same race that saw Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott for the championship – all in the 1992 season-ending event – Mast didn’t hesitate.

“You don’t have to guess. You know.”

Yes, it was Mast.

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